Hornish optimistic for another strong Richmond performance

Sam Hornish Jr. had a huge smile on his face when he discussed this weekend’s return to Richmond International Raceway for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400.  Hornish, chatting with a group of sponsor representatives in the Shell-Pennzoil team transporter before last Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, almost had to bridle his enthusiasm.  After all, he had the tough Sunday night battle at AMS in front of him before he could turn his full focus on RIR.

“We’re really looking forward to getting back to Richmond,” Hornish said.  “I just fell in love with that track from the very first time we went there with the Indy cars.  I’ve enjoyed racing there since day one.  It just fits my style.  I’ve always loved the shorter and flatter race tracks.

“We had a lot of success there in the open-wheel competition and the momentum seemed to follow us on over when we started racing the stock cars,” Hornish said.  “We’ve had some strong runs and decent finishes at Richmond.  I always try to go into every track we race on with a positive attitude.  I’ve always said that I don’t dislike any race track – that I enjoy racing on every one of them.

“But, there’s always an extra big feeling of eagerness when we look at the schedule and see that we’re headed back to Richmond,” Hornish added.  “It’s another weekend with the busy schedule of running both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races.  It can be challenging to keep on bouncing back from one garage to the other, but I’m loving it.  Running both cars has proven beneficial and I know that’ll certainly be the case again this weekend.

“We’re getting stronger as a group with Todd (Gordon, crew chief) and all the guys on the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Team,” said Hornish.  “I am so thankful to continue to have the opportunity to drive that 22 Cup car.  We carried the Pennzoil colors to the winner’s circle at Richmond in the IndyCar race there 10 years ago.  We’ll be trying as hard as we can to take our Shell-Pennzoil Cup car to Victory Lane on Saturday night.”

Hornish competed in seven IndyCar races at RIR from 2001-2007.  He scored two wins (2002 for Panther Racing and 2006 for Penske Racing) and four top-five finishes before he turned his focus to stock cars in 2008.  Hornish holds the open-wheel series’ track qualifying record of 176.244 mph (15.320 seconds), a feat he accomplished in 2005.

In six NASCAR Sprint Cup starts (from 2008 through 2010) at Richmond entering this weekend, Hornish scored two top-10 finishes with a sixth in the May 2009 race his best result to date.  In four RIR NASCAR Nationwide Series races entering Friday night’s Virginia 529 College Savings 250, he has one top-five finish and two top-10s.  Hornish’s fifth-place finish in April’s most recent visit rates as his best tally.

Crew chief Todd Gordon was still thinking about his driver’s impressive performance in Sunday’s Atlanta race when reached on Monday evening.  “We had a fourth to seventh-place car there and had to settle for the 11th-place finish,” Gordon said.  “Sam did a tremendous job with our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge the entire weekend.  His ability to stay on top of the tire maintenance situation was impressive.  We were strong all the way to the finish, even after the unfortunate incident there toward the end where Sam was an innocent victim.
“I’ve said all along that having Sam racing in the Nationwide side is such a big bonus in helping our Cup program and the Atlanta weekend certainly was proof of that,” Gordon said.  “He got Saturday night’s race under his belt and we met up front in the transporter early Sunday afternoon to do a full review.  It was great because we were able to discuss everything from the tire wear situation to the frustrations he experienced there on Saturday night.

“The more Sam and this team have worked together, the better we get,” said Gordon.  “I am really impressed with how Sam has become such a ‘big picture’ driver all the way around.  He is such a pleasure to work with and we’re enjoying seeing all the hard work everyone is putting into our program starting to show up out there on the race track.

“We worked together a few times last season and just the eight races this year and I see Sam only getting better and better – regardless of if it’s racing the Nationwide car or in our Cup car,” said Gordon.  “From what I have heard and now what I have seen personally and experienced, there has to have been a ‘Sam Hornish Version 1 versus Sam Hornish Version 2.’

“People talk about what Sam’s record was in his past Cup experience and I have to stop and ask, ‘Am I working with that same driver?’  It’s like he has gotten a second shot at it and the light bulb came on.  I don’t know that much about the past, but I see a very talented and determined driver climbing into our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge these days.  He’s a guy who’s definitely on an upward spiral.

“We’re really looking forward to Richmond this weekend,” Gordon said.  “We had such a strong Shell-Pennzoil Dodge there during the spring race – ran in the top five and had good speed throughout the race.  Sam finished fifth there in the spring Nationwide race and it was a disappointing fifth because he ran stronger than that.  He’s coming back in there really hungry and I’m so glad he’ll be driving our car again this weekend.  We think we can have a really competitive weekend at Richmond.”

Hornish, Gordon and the Penske Racing No. 22 Team will be utilizing their “PRS-821” Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger this weekend at Richmond.  This is the same car that AJ Allmendinger raced in the April 14 Samsung 500 at Texas (started 12th and finished 15th).  The car was also raced again in the June 17 Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan (started 20th and finished 19th).  It has been completely updated since and will be making its third start this weekend at RIR.  The “PRS-807” will serve as the team’s backup.  It was in the 22 team transporter serving as the backup at Phoenix, both Bristol races and Martinsville, but has never seen any track time to date.